How can you be sure you know what you know? This blog post will give you one simple step to help you line up your perceptions with reality!

How to Know What You Know: 1 Easy Way to Calibrate Your Self-Confidence

Last week in a private coaching forum I’m part of, one of the members asked: “How do we help our students know that they’re ready for an exam? So many of them are stressing out about getting straight As!”

Her description of this student made me think of a poignant moment in Dr. Judith Rapoport’s book about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD: “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing.” Several of her patients had the form of this disease that presents as constant doubting. When she tried to reassure one of her patients about his particular doubts, his response was “Yes, yes, everyone says that. But how do I know that I know it?”

While most students do not have to deal with this severe-doubting form of OCD, it’s true that many of them do not know how to “know what they know,” even when they use the “learn it-check it-learn it in a new way” format of studying.  No matter how many times they check their knowledge, they’re still convinced that they’re heading into a disaster when they think about taking a test.

On the other end of the spectrum are the students who are overconfident. They don’t study much, but they feel confident in their knowledge. When the test comes, and they do poorly, they may not know how to handle this reality. Colleagues of mine have had students demand to see the exam key, insist that their grading must have been incorrect, and even dismiss the sources the test was based on!

This is where the disconnect between knowing something, and knowing that you know it, often shows up. High-pressure situations like exams can make it worse. Using the learn-and-check method might help you see that you know it, but how do you make your inner doubter realize that you do? Or, on the other hand, how do you bring your inner braggart down to earth and make them realize there’s more work to be done before that overconfidence is warranted?

Here’s a simple way to help check your confidence and bring it in line with reality.

Rate Your Confidence

Part of the learn-and-check method is giving yourself a quiz or a test to see how much you actually know (that’s the “check” part). To help yourself bring your confidence – your feelings about how well or poorly you did – in line with reality, add one step to taking the quiz before you look at the answers and grade your attempt.

For each question, write down how confident you are, out of 10, that your answer is correct. If you want, use a separate piece of paper and make these notes about how you feel. You might say: “For question 1, I am 6/10 confident that my answer is right. I think that I would be more confident if I wasn’t so afraid of math,” or “For question 9, I’m 3/10 confident that my answer is right. I am not confident because I missed a study session and the test is tomorrow,” or “For question 4, I am 10/10 confident that my answer is right because I remember this exact question from the textbook.”

Then, Check and Compare

Once you’ve written down your ratings of your own feelings about each question, grade the quiz you took. Then compare the ratings you gave each question to the score you got on each question. You might find that your answer to question 1 and 4 were right, but that question 9 was wrong. This means your ratings match reality, for the most part – you were pretty sure you knew question 1 and question 4, but you blew it on question 9, and you thought you would. In this case, you just need to do more studying on question 9 until you know its answer.

But let’s say you blew it on all three questions. You thought you’d be fine, but you weren’t. In this case, think about why you were overconfident. Was it because tests have always been easy before? Was it because you felt like everything you were looking at was familiar when you were studying, so you didn’t study that much? If you can identify the source of your overconfidence, you can build a habit to correct the problem and remind yourself – for example – that just because something is familiar doesn’t mean you know it.

Or let’s say all three answers you gave were right. In this case, think about how to address why you were under-confident. Are you the kind of person who always assumes the worst? Maybe it’s time to start trusting yourself when you get the right answers most of the time. Is it a surprise to get the right answers? Why is that? If you can identify the source of your under-confidence, you can build a habit to correct that problem and remind yourself – for example – that just because it feels hard doesn’t mean you don’t know it.

Tying it Together

When your ability to assess your readiness for something like a test isn’t lined up with reality, it can cause a lot of stress – before the test, for the person who thinks they’re going to blow it, and after the test, for the person who was sure they wouldn’t.

The reasons why this happens might need some time to unpack, too. You may have to really think about what is making you so cocky or so down on yourself for a while before you find something you can work on. But as you look at the underlying reasons for under-confidence or overconfidence, you may find that your ratings of your answers and the reality of the results will begin to line up more accurately. When they do, your stress levels (either before or after the test) should go down.

Try this method and let me know how it went! You can leave a comment below.

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